There are many ways that children survived the Holocaust: in hiding, in concentration camps, or shipped off on the Kindertransport to England or to the U.S. Some wandered through forests, always on the run, living by their wits, and some joined partisan groups. And this list is far from all-inclusive. Almost all of these children were torn away from their parents and often never saw them again. Very few children were fortunate enough not to be separated from at least one parent.
The majority of child survivors were Hidden Children, children under the age of fourteen literally hiding in cemeteries, in holes dug under floor planks, in cellars, closets, haylofts or attics. Some of these children did not see daylight for months or years. Others, while not physically hidden, were given over to Christian families and hid their identity, some were adopted and baptized, and some were shuffled from place to place. Some of these were loved and accepted; others were tolerated, exploited or abused. Many children found shelter in monasteries and convents, and some are still there today.
Some children remained with their adopted parents after the war, not knowing that these were not their biological parents. As incredible as it might sound, some of these children are just now, in their 50’s and 60’s, finding out that they are Jews, and some never will.
Although there are as many different stories as there are Hidden Children, we share many similar traits: we feel different from others, we feel that we did not suffer enough, that we are still pretending to be someone else, that we do not belong anywhere and that we have no right to take our place among adult survivor groups. Over the years, we have been constantly told how lucky we were to have been so young and thus not to have been impacted by those horrible events. We believed our elders and thought that we had no right to speak up. It took us almost half a century to finally break our silence.
Today, there is a World Federation of Child Survivors and a national Hidden Child Organization, and these have chapters in almost every American city and in many countries around the world. Our first international conference was held in 1989, when sixteen hundred Hidden Children showed up in Madison Square Garden in New York. Now we have yearly conferences, which attract people from everywhere. We are emerging out of our silence and are finally speaking out.
Here in St Louis we have a small Child Survivor Group of twenty members. About half of us were Hidden Children but were not always placed with caring rescuers . Let me summarize the experiences of two of our members as well as my own to illustrate some different aspects of those years.
My first friend—I will call her Estelle—was born in France to a poor family of five children. She was seven when the war broke out. Her father was imprisoned almost immediately. At the suggestion of O.S.E. (Oeuvres pour le Secours des Enfants), a children’s humanitarian organization, the family separated in order to have a better chance of survival. My friend and her three-year-old brother were sent to a castle where 320 Jewish children were being sheltered. Being warned of an upcoming German raid, the leaders scattered the children, and Estelle and her brother were put on a train. If stopped by the Gestapo, she was instructed to cry and scream that she had lost her mother. She was also told to pinch her brother to make him cry, too. This scenario actually did happen, and the ruse saved their lives. As frustrated German soldiers were trying to question them, the train stopped at a station, and the exasperated soldiers threw both screaming children to a couple of nuns who happened to be there and who were told to “take care of them.”
Because her brother was circumcised, the nuns realized right away that these were Jewish children, and they took them to a Catholic orphanage. When Estelle developed tonsillitis, one of the nuns cut her tonsils out with pliers used to cut grapes off bushes rather than take the chance of discovery by taking her to a hospital. Somehow Estelle survived this ordeal as well as the mice and rats with whom she shared the windowless attic, which served as her hospital room. She slept on straw and was fed leftover scraps brought to her by a friendly janitor, who rescued her from her miserable situation one day when he just picked her up and carried her to a farm. One day, while on the farm, approaching police were spotted, and Estelle was hidden in a bucket, which was lowered into a well, and told not to make a sound until brought back up.
After a while, it was deemed too dangerous by the farmers to keep Estelle, and she was taken to the market place in a distant village. A necklace with a plea for help was hung around her neck, and she was left alone. Estelle still recalls how she stood there all day, never saying a word, crying out or moving, just as she had been instructed. Towards evening, a lady and her daughter came up to her. She recalls the little girl saying, “Mom, can we take her in for just one night? I’ll share my food with her.” After some mother-daughter discussion, Estelle was taken to a warm bed and given food to eat. The family took a liking to her, decided to convert Estelle to Catholicism, and sent her to a Catholic school. She was happy there, was clothed and fed, and was able to keep clean.
Eight months after the end of the war, two Red Cross workers showed up and took her away. She was hysterical but cried to no avail. Eventually, she was told that her father was waiting for her at the train station. Miraculously, all her immediate family had survived, but Estelle had a very hard time readjusting to her biological family, and she missed her former environment. She faithfully said her Catholic prayers and crossed herself before every meal. All this ended abruptly one day when her father, seeing her make the sign of the cross, told her tearfully that he had lost her just as he had lost his five sisters and their families. Her response was, “Because of me, you will never cry again.” From that day on, Estelle returned to her Jewish roots.
My second friend—I will call her Alice—was born in Warsaw, Poland. She was five at the time of the German invasion. Shortly after the Occupation, her mother dropped her off at her grandmother’s home and left. The last picture Alice had of her mother was of her kneeling and saying good-bye to her with tears streaming down her face. Alice never saw her mother again; she was probably caught by the Germans.
Later, Alice’s father and uncle procured false Aryan papers for themselves and her and moved to a small town where her father worked as a barber. One day, a Pole came in for a haircut. He had a farm in a small town in Germany and had come to find workers. For reasons unclear to Alice, her father revealed their true identity to this man and requested that both of them be taken to his farm. The man agreed. However, because her father could not leave right away, it was arranged that Alice would go alone, and her father would follow later on. Alice remembers her last meeting with her father. He told her to never ever reveal her Jewish identify or real name to anyone. The name on the false papers would become her real name. Alice never saw her father again.
She and the man rode on a crowded wagon for what seemed like months, during which time she had no bathing facilities. Alice remembers arriving at the man’s farm, his wife taking one look at this straggly, unkempt, unwashed dirty little five year old and saying, “And what is that?” The woman took an instant dislike to Alice. She had an infant, and Alice was immediately put in charge of the sickly boy, giving him his bottle, changing and washing his diapers, and taking him to the village faith healer. When the infant died a year later, Alice was made a tutor to their older boy, who was one year her senior. No matter how hard she tried, she was not able to teach him anything, so she was made to work as a farm hand. She milked the cows, gathered up the eggs, and did all kinds of other chores. In the winter, her toes would be frostbitten, but, no matter how hard she tried, she could never do anything right. She was accused of lying and stealing and received frequent beatings. In 1943, when Alice stopped receiving letters from her father, she suspected that something terrible had happened to him and lived in constant fear as well as hunger.
Alice was sent to school and communion classes; Sundays she went to church and to confession. She confessed to lying and stealing; she confessed to everything she was supposed to, but she never revealed her Jewish identity or her real name. In May 1945, Alice’s uncle, who had survived Auschwitz, found her. Alice immediately recognized him. She was overjoyed at the prospect of being rescued. However, the Polish family did not want to give Alice up. They demanded money, which her uncle did not have. When all negotiations failed, it was arranged for her to run away at night when everyone was sleeping. That is what she did.
My own story is again different. I was born in Tarnow, Poland a few months after the German invasion. Having been so young, I have very few memories of the war. My memories are my parents’ memories, for I had the extreme and unusual good fortune that both my parents survived and that I was never separated from my mother.
In 1942, when the Nazi liquidation began in earnest, my parents and I were miraculously released from a train transport going to Auschwitz. Following this incident, my father obtained a false I.D. for my mother and a Catholic birth certificate for me. My mother and I were smuggled out of the Ghetto and eventually landed in Warsaw. She somehow managed to learn and then teach me all the necessary Catholic prayers and proper demeanor at Mass and took me faithfully to church every Sunday. Since I had been so young when we left the Ghetto, I quickly forgot that I was Jewish.
In 1943, my father was able to escape from the Ghetto and came to join us in Warsaw. I did not recognize him, and, since I had been told that my father was a Polish soldier missing in action, he was introduced to me as my father’s friend, and I called him “Uncle.” Circumstances required that my father hide behind a large cabinet in our one-room apartment. I was thoroughly trained not to mention to a soul that someone was hiding in our room, and it was drilled into me to admit that I lived only with my mother. One wrong word to anybody by this four-year-old could have meant the death of us all. Since I am here today, it is obvious that I did a fine job though, after the war, I had to be retrained regarding the meaning of truth.
In the summer of 1944, the Russian liberating army stood outside of Warsaw, and the Polish underground army rose up against the Germans. But, when the Russians halted their advance, the revolt failed miserably, and Warsaw was leveled. One has only to see the movie The Pianist to get an idea of what the city looked like. My parents and I, along with thousands of Warsaw inhabitants, were driven out of the city eastwards towards a transit camp in Pruszkow. From here, some people were sent to Germany for slave labor and some to Auschwitz, while others were set free. Through luck, fate and some cunning, the three of us were let go. We wandered from village to village, seeking and being refused shelter from farmers. Finally, in a tiny village called Chiliczki, near the city of Grodzisk, Maz, one family took us in . According to my parents, no one knew we were Jews; they believed us to be Polish refugees from Warsaw. The farmer, his wife, and two daughters (aged 11 and 16) shared their two-room farmhouse and their food with us. I became the little sister to the two girls, and no one ever suspected that we were Jews.
After liberation, my father reestablished himself as a watchmaker and jeweler in the resort town of Zopot in the north of Poland. In 1947, after the Communists took control of Poland, we had to leave the country. We went on vacation to Belgium, never to return. It was only then, at the age of seven, in the summer of 1947, that I was told the truth about my identity. I was a Jew, my whole family was Jewish, and most importantly, my “uncle” was really my father.
I remember that, ever since that year, I felt a strong need to go back to Poland. In 1994, I was finally able to make the trip. I saw the town and the house where I was born, I saw the streets where my grandparents had lived, the store that had belonged to my father and grandfather, and I also found the farm in Chiliczki and reconnected with the two sisters. I was greeted by them as the long lost little sister, hugged and kissed and showered with presents. But, as much as I had wanted to, I did not tell them that their parents had sheltered a Jewish family, because in the course of our conversation the older sister’s husband angrily remarked that Lech Walesa, the President of Poland at that time, was a traitor to Poland; he was selling Poland to the Jews.
So I kept quiet, feeling as if I had traveled back in time to 1944, only now I was the one who was pretending and not revealing my identity instead of my parents. For almost twelve years, we corresponded and exchanged gifts, and they kept inviting me and my family to come back to visit. It was not until the summer of 2005, when I went back to Poland with my daughter and two granddaughters, that I openly spoke about my Jewish background to the one sister who was still alive. She claimed, at that point, that our identity had been known to her and her family all along. Do I believe her? On one hand, it is her word against my parents’ (who are no longer alive); on the other hand, today, in 2008, it does not really matter. Her parents did save us. Whether they knew who we were or not is only important to Yad Vashem, which refused them the status of “righteous Gentiles” due to the fact that all who were adult witnesses during those five months we stayed with them are gone. For some of us there is and probably never will be any real final closure.
Each survivor and Hidden Child has a unique story to tell. Each of us will carry the emotional affects of the Holocaust with us for as long as we live. Deliberately or not, we will also pass it on to our children and grandchildren.